Beautiful Stranger

Now that it's 2013, I'm just now getting my hands on the popular things of 2012 that I missed when they first got released. One of those is Jess Walter's novel Beautiful Ruins, which I initially read a favorable review of, then saw popping up on a lot of people's recommendation lists. The blurb description of a lonely innkeeper's infatuation with a struggling Hollywood starlet in 1960s Italy seemed a decent premise and a good basis for a vacation read, so I grabbed a copy from the library before I left town.

Wow. The blurb didn't do it justice. This story is a metric ton more complex than a simple tale of Pasquale's crush on Dee, though that part of the story is lovely. Not content to stay in one place or time, Walter's book jumps forward and backward in time, back and forth in locale, weaves real life personalities like Richard Burton in with the fictional characters, and goes meta with fictional writings from the characters themselves. It sounds convoluted, but works in the best ways. Pasquale is befriended by a visiting author, who's failed to write anything but a single chapter in a never-to-be published novel. He and Dee discuss the work, which suddenly shows up later as one of Beautiful Ruins' chapters itself. In the present, a disillusioned producer's assistant rediscovers her ambition and purpose through her self-involved boss' quest to find an elderly Dee, whose son is a musician and a hot mess, whose girlfriend writes a play, which is attended by the producer's assistant. And so on and so on.

The Cloud Atlas-style jumps in character, setting, and tone are masterfully interwoven. They all pull together to tell a beautiful, melancholy story of the people in our lives, and how our experiences are richer for having known them, no matter how large the heaps of disappointment we may lay at their feet are. The plot device of people being invisibly and inexorably connected across space and time is a well-worn one, but this novel deftly pulls it off better than almost anything else I've ever seen.

Beautiful Ruins: A


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